Golfing in Cornwall

Golfing in Cornwall

John Kernick
John Kernick
With rugged courses and a character to match, England's sea-battered boot can give the golfer a swift kick in the pants

Back in the Twenties, the British humorist A. P. Herbert wrote a piece for Punch magazine entitled "Is a Golfer a Gentleman?" It tells of one Mr. Albert Haddock, who, after a series of mishits on a particularly challenging cliffside par three at Mullion Golf Club, in Cornwall, lets loose a string of profanities that puts him in violation of the Profane Oaths Act of 1745. The act levies a one-shilling-per-curse fine for those of the lower classes but charges five times that to a "gentleman" like Mr. Haddock. Having admitted to more than four hundred curses on the golf course that day, Haddock faces a hundred-pound fine, but he contests the amount on the grounds that when he's playing golf he is not a gentleman.

Fortunately for Haddock, his judge was a kindred spirit. Mr. Haddock, the magistrate says, "has reminded us that the law takes notice, in many cases, of such exceptional circumstances as will break down the normal restraints of a civilised citizen and so powerfully inflame his passions that it would be unjust and idle to apply to his conduct the ordinary standards of the law."

I played Mullion last autumn, and I too can sympathize with Mr. Haddock. Like a number of Cornwall's courses, Mullion combines natural beauty and unnatural difficulty in a way that is destined to inflame the passions of any golfer.

Cornwall, England's sea-battered boot, is not the part of Great Britain one readily associates with golf. I only became aware of this region myself in 1997 while living in England to research a book. One brisk yet balmy November afternoon, I hiked out along the ocean cliffs at Cape Cornwall, and where the trail crested between a high stone wall and a fifty-foot drop to the Atlantic Ocean, came upon a rather startling scene. Just on the other side of the wall, a group of golfers in sweaters and tweed caps stood at a tee about to hit, it seemed, toward heaven. I walked a bit farther and saw the greens and waving flags of the course's holes arranged in descending, wall-rimmed tiers of plush green--like the farmed steppes of a Nepalese hillside. The course's designers had so yielded to the landscape that they had only to trim the grass and place the pins. As for the golfers, they--despite the imminent peril of sliding off into the sea--seemed to be in golf nirvana.

Here, it occurred to me, was the perfect antidote to a malady that often overcomes me on a golf course: ennui of the links--when you have only yourself to visit with, remonstrate, regret. High on a Cornish cliff with the ocean crashing below, you have no choice but to get out of yourself. I decided then and there that I would return at roughly the same time of year. Showing up as I did in mid-November not only allows you to stroll right onto a given course but also ensures that you will have to battle the elements, which define the Cornish golf experience.

Cornwall being only half the size of New Jersey, I decided to situate myself in one place and light out each day to a different golf course. Along with major stretches of the British coastline, the National Trust owns a variety of homes and cottages that can be rented very reasonably, especially off-season. So I put up in Cadgwith, a tiny, thatched-roofed fishing village on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, and planned my tour, starting with the cliffside layouts at Mullion, Falmouth and Cape Cornwall, working inland to St. Mellion and finishing at the fabled tracks of Trevose and St. Enodoc.

Mullion Golf Club, England's southernmost course, is a mere fifteen-minute drive from Cadgwith, though no drive in Cornwall is "mere." Aside from its few main thoroughfares, Cornwall doesn't have roads so much as hedgerowed cow paths that can render you a nearsighted rat in a maze. Every inch of land was parceled, purchased and plowed long b efore the dawn of the automobile. You either slow down and take in the landscape or take the chance of wearing it.

Along with A. P. Herbert, A. A. Milne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir James Barrie were among the many British literary lights drawn to Mullion. Situated above Mounts Bay, the course, first established in 1895, encompasseswithin its 6,037 yards the whole spectrum of golf course geography, from clifftop to inland to traditional links. Hole by hole, Mullion is not particularly demanding. But like a number of the Cornish courses, it has, at first, a sprawling, somewhat ill-defined feel. So overwhelming is the Mounts Bay backdrop and the mounded lay of the dunes upon which the course sits that you and your purpose there are rendered entirely incidental. Standing on the first tee, I had the feeling I was about to hit into an animate landscape painting.

This was Cornwall golf exactly as I'd been reliving it in my mind since that first encounter at Cape Cornwall. A stiff wind was blowing in off Mounts Bay, but the sun and the Gulf Stream conspired to keep the day in the low sixties. The Cornish wind can seem another kind of landscape, and at times you must play it as such, bounce shots off of it, hit others through the valleylike lulls. That and learning to stop confusing stray gull feathers for your ball are the first two lessons of golfing Cornwall. The sooner they're absorbed, the sooner you can get past the patent absurdity of trying to will a ball around such a glorious, windswept expanse and start enjoying it.

A. P. Herbert caught the spirit in "A Song of Mullion":

My ball is in a bunch of fern
A jolly place to be;
An angry man is close astern,
He waves his club at me.
Well let him wave--the sky is blue;
Go on, old ball, we are but two,
We may be down in three,
Or nine--or ten--or twenty-five--
It matters not; to be alive
Is good enough for me.

The infamous Chasm hole that sent the fictional Mr. Haddock and countless real-life counterparts over the deep end no longer exists because of erosion of the cliffside. The precipitous sixth hole along the course's pasture-rimmed northwest boundary--you can practically putt your ball off the tee and watch it roll down to the seaside green--and the seventh, or Ravine hole, are now the signature holes of Mullion. They lead you around to the links area of the course, holes seven through ten. Then, from the par-three eleventh, you climb your way back up and inland again to the latter part of the back nine. At the par-four fourteenth, running straight back toward the sea, I lost a prodigiously shanked drive in the setting sun and wound up with a double bogey. But there among the high cliffs, I couldn't have been less troubled, strolling down the fairway, singing to myself "A Song of Mullion": "Was that a slice?You may be right / But, goodness what a day!"

Back at the clubhouse lounge, I caught up with the course manager, Gerry Fitter. A lean, soft-spoken man in his late fifties, he grew up on the peninsula's northern coast. He seemed a bit surprised by the presence of a Yank at Mullion this time of year.

How late in the season do most Cornish golfers venture?

"We have a hardy membership," Fitter told me, smiling. "I've seen them out here in all kinds of weather. I wouldn't walk a flippin' dog in whatthey go out in."

Geographically, Falmouth is something of a mishmash: a wide, sprawling expanse of grassy upland, or "downs," hard by the sea. The course is essentially a sky-borne stretch of sheep-grazing land, and one needs to be a bit of a sheep to negotiate it. By the time I ascended to the fourteenth green, I felt as though I'd left the earth behind, as though I'd been deposited there by a hot-air balloon, the low-scudding clouds almost touchable overhead. My putt for par wound up just left, and then I watched in amazement as a sudden gust of wind blew it into the hole.

"It's not always this blustery here," Bryan Patterson, the architect, club pro and co-owner of Falmouth, assured me at the club's driving range. A short, sturdily built Irishman, Patterson played as a pro in the 1960s, qualifying for the British Open in 1966. Watching him swat a bucket of picture-perfect drives into the teeth of the gales blowing in off Falmouth Bay, I couldn't help--given my own windblown escapades--asking him for some quick, free tips.

"The best thing I've ever heard about the golf swing Fred Daly told me back in nineteen forty-seven," Patterson said, referring to his fellow pro and countryman, the only Irishman to win the British Open. "He said it should be a pendulum kept at forty-five degrees. These big, ninety-degree, Ferris wheel swings you see now cause too many slices and don't even hit the ball as far."

I would recall those words the following morning standing in the rough along the first fairway at Cape Cornwall Golf & Country Club. Remembering that forty-five-degree pendulum swing, I purposely directed my three-iron tee shot far left of the fairway, out over the ocean cliffs, for the delirious, A. P. Herbert-ish pleasure of watching the wind deposit my shot a good fifty yards to the right of the pin.

Bryan Patterson considers Cape Cornwall a bit gimmicky. But to the nonprofessional, it's an experience not to be missed--a beautifully sculpted nonstop-roller-coaster thrill ride. The grounds had been a farm until only ten years ago, and the fairways were laid out in accordance with the stone walls that once framed the hillside pastures.

I was rolling along on the front nine that morning, about to tee off on the 491-yard par-five fifth hole, when I noticed far out on the horizon the telltale snare of atmosphere just above the ocean. I remembered this from my previous visit. You can time it like a train. A high-speed train. One minute I'd be walking out on the cliffs in the warming sunshine, the next I was drowning in a cold, sideways-driving rain. Rain squalls, fog banks, bright sunshine, full rainbows. They can come in rapid succession in Cornwall. The place is God's weather workshop.

I didn't bother to run, just reached into my golf bag, pulled out my all-weather gear and started back toward the clubhouse as the squall washed over. Peering back across the water-smeared fairways, I saw a lone figure bundled in rain gear, bending over his next shot. "It is," I remembered Bryan Patterson telling me, "a rugged brand of golfer we have here in Cornwall."

Back at the clubhouse--which was formerly the farmhouse, with the adjacent barn and stables now converted into hotel accommodations--I decided to grab a bite by the fireplace and wait out the weather. Outside, the rain soon passed, and under a full-arching rainbow, I was able to get back out and complete my round, savoring the back nine in particular, with its tiered and tufted fairways and clifftop greens.

Among Cornwall's thirty-odd golf courses are a number of notable parkland tracks. I opted to go east and south to where the River Tamar, the border between Cornwall and Devon, empties into Plymouth Sound. Just north of Saltash, on the western, Cornish side of the Sound, is the so-called big daddy of Cornish golf courses, St. Mellion Hotel Golf & Country Club. There are, in fact, two sprawling parkland courses at St. Mellion: the Old course, which was built in the late seventies and has served as the site of several Celebrity Golf Classics and the Tournament Players Championship, and then, completely enveloping and overwhelming the latter course in terms of both reputation and difficulty, the Nicklaus layout.

"St. Mellion is potentially the finest golf course in Europe," Jack Nicklaus stated on the occasion of the course's official opening back in July 1988, a day in which he and fellow golf luminaries Tom Watson, Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo, all on hand for the inauguration, had to stand by and watch a classic Cornish storm nearly swallow the place whole. Nicklaus's creation is without question a breathtakingly dynamic bit of landscape architecture. But ten years after that inaugural downpour, St. Mellion is literally in danger of drowning. In another fit of effusiveness about his own creation, Nicklaus called St. Mellion one of the finest "galleried courses in the world," meaning, in this case, the sloping of fairways on either side so that spectators can look down on the action. It's a design better suited to places like Southern California or Florida, with relatively sporadic rainfall. In Cornwall, such a shape can readily result in a very scenic canal system.

The gracious young woman at the St. Mellion pro shop warned me that course conditions were a bit mucky and disheveled. There had been a good bit of rain in recent months, she explained, and as a result, a whole new drainage system was being built finally to alleviate St. Mellion's persistent flooding problems. But the sloppy, sliced-up fairways notwithstanding, I'd never known a round of golf such as that, each hole a kind of idyllic diorama drawing you into its spell: number nine's monstrous mogul-scape; the par-three eleven's pond-buffered green, with flocks of pheasants strolling behind it; and then the par-five twelfth, often called the most beautiful in Cornwall--the tee shot over water leading to a long, tree-bound fairway bordered on the right by a brook that cuts in front of the green and must be crossed on a stone bridge. St. Mellion has to be played again and again if only to help you get over your awe of the place and the nagging compulsion it creates in you to make every shot as perfect as its surroundings.

I set out the following morning for the ancient port of Padstow, on Cornwall's northern coast, and Trevose Golf and Country Club. The championship course was laid out by Harry Colt, designer of Swinley Forest, Wentworth and Sunningdale, among others. (There are two nine-hole layouts on the property as well.) Like St. Enodoc Golf Club, on the opposite side of Padstow Bay, Trevose is one of Cornwall's great links courses.

The first tee lies alongside the clubhouse and the club's luxury bungalows and flats, high on a crest overlooking Constantine Bay. But once you've launched your tee shot down the 443-yard first, you descend into one of the dreamiest golf days you'll ever have, a day among the dunes and the swooping gulls. Especially on the front nine, nestled alongside the shore of the bay, you will feel like you're at the beach with a set of clubs--everywhere the sound of the sea, and the wide-open sky and, looking far inland, the white smoke rising from village chimneys.

There was little wind that day and no standing water--Trevose's sandy subsoil readily absorbs rain--and the roughs were cut so low that the wide fairways seemed to meld into one boundless, ever-forgiving fairway. Heavily bunkered, sloped greens, however, wreak havoc with one's short game. No one has bettered sixty-six in Trevose's seventy-five-year history. Still, I managed my best round of the week and was tempted to play again, but since this was my last day, I drove around to the other side of Padstow, to the legendary St. Enodoc Golf Club.

The main, or Church, course at St. Enodoc does naturally what St. Mellion was constructed to do: dwarf and overwhelm you. There's something foreboding about St. Enodoc--its high dunes (the infamous Himalaya Dune at the sixth hole all but eclipses the sky), deep hollows, tussocks and plateaus all carved and crafted by North Atlantic gales. You actually get a knot in your belly embarking upon this landscape, that sense of awe mixed with unsettling belittlement that the Romantics called the Sublime.

Where the course winds its way around to the shores of Daymer Bay at the eleventh and twelfth holes, you come upon the once-sand-swallowed St. Enodoc Church, for which the course is named. Excavated and refurbished in 1864, parts of the church date back to late Saxon times, some one thousand years ago, and with its stumpy, slightly warped thirteenth-century tower, it looks from a distance like a wet sa nd sculpture about to succumb again to the elements. In the churchyard, beside the twelfth hole, is the grave of England's former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who holidayed every summer at nearby Trebetherick until his death in 1984.

As with A. P. Herbert and his beloved Mullion Golf Club, Betjeman waxed lyrical about the St. Enodoc course. And as I finished the last of my rounds on this craggy, mystical, windswept peninsula, I could see why:

Ah! seaweed smells from sandy caves
And thyme and mist in whiffs,
In-coming tide, Atlantic waves
Slapping the sunny cliffs,
Lark song and sea sounds in the air
And splendour, splendour everywhere!

Keeping the Ball Down

The Church course is very open to the elements, particularly the wind. The low punch or knockdown shot is therefore indispensable.

First off, choose the right club. A yardage chart is irrelevant in the wind. Depending on the strength of the wind and your experience, you'll need to upgrade by one, two or three clubs.

Grip down fractionally on the handle. This helps shorten the swing and offers more control. Take a slightly wider stance than normal for maximum stability, and place the ball back in your stance.

Complete the shoulder turn, and keep the club traveling low. With your hands ahead of the club head, drive the ball on a low trajectory. Feel your body move over the ball at impact. Finish with your weight on the front foot.
--Mark Arrowsmith, Pro, St. Enodoc Golf Club

Mining Cornwall

Cape Cornwall Golf & Country Club, St. Just, Penzance
par/yardage: 70, 5,650
architect: Bob Hamilton
phone: 011-44-1-736-788611
Falmouth Golf Club, Swanpool Rd., Falmouth
par/yardage: 71, 6,113
architect: Bryan Patterson
phone: 011-44-1-326-311262
Mullion Golf Club, Cury, Helston
par/yardage: 70, 6,037
architect: W. Sich
phone: 011-44-1-326-241176
St. Enodoc Golf Club, Church/Holywell courses, Rock, Wadebridge
par/yardage: 69, 6,243 (Church); 63, 4,143 (Holywell)
architect: James Braid
phone: 011-44-1-208-863216
St. Mellion Hotel Golf & Country Club, Nicklaus/Old courses, Saltash
par/yardage: 72, 6,651 (Nicklaus); 68, 5,782 (Old)
architects: Jack Nicklaus; J. Hamilton Stutt (Old)
phone: 011-44-1-579-351351
Trevose Golf and Country Club, Constantine Bay, Padstow
par/yardage: 71, 6,608
architect: Harry Colt
phone: 011-44-1-841-520208

In addition to the following, the National Trust has numerous coastal properties for rent. Call 011-44-1-208-742814.
Abbey Hotel, Abbey St., Penzance, 011-44-1-736-366906
Hotel Tresanton, Lower Castle Rd., St. Mawes,011-44-1-326-270055
St. Enodoc Hotel, Rock, Wadebridge, 011-44-1-208-863394
St. Mellion Hotel Golf & Country Club, Saltash,011-44-1-579-351351

Atlantic View Hotel, Tintagel,011-44-1-840-770221
Brocks Restaurant, The Strand, Padstow,011-44-1-841-532565
Crab Pot, Harbour Rd., Porthleven,011-44-1-326-573355
Critchards Seafood Restaurant, Harbour Head, Porthleven, 011-44-1-326-562407
La Belle Alliance Restaurant, The Old Rd., Boscastle, 011-44-1-840-250202
Porthminster Beach Café, Porthminster Beach, St. Ives, 011-44-1-736-795352
The Rising Sun, The Square, St. Mawes, 011-44-1-326-270233
Seafood Restaurant, Riverside, Padstow, 011-44-1-841-532485
Star Inn Pub, Fore St., St. Just in Penwith, 011-44-1-736-788767
St. Petroc's Bistro, New St., Padstow, 011-44-1-841-532700
The Turk's Head, 49 Chapel St., Penzance, 011-44-1-736-363093
The Wheelhouse, Quayside, Port Isaac, 011-44-1-208-880226

Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden, Barnoon Hill, St. Ives, 011- 44-1-736-796226
Iles of Scilly Steamship Co. Ltd., Steamship House, Quay St., Penzance, 011-44-1-736-362009
Tintagel Castle, Tintagel Head, Tintagel, 011-44-1-840-770328


DAY ONE: Check in at Penzance's Abbey Hotel, where model Jean Shrimpton plays host. Play Mullion Golf Club. Lunch at the Crab Pot. Return to Penzance. Board the Scillonian III for views of St. Michael's Mount and the Iles of Scilly. Dine at the Turk's Head.

DAY TWO: Play Cape Cornwall. Head south to Land's End. Have lunch and a pint at the three-hundred-year-old Star Inn Pub. Drive to artsy St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden. Have dinner at Porthminster Beach Café.

DAY THREE: Play Falmouth Golf Club. Pick up a lunch of pasties and some Cornish ice cream (clotted cream), and drive to the Lizard Peninsula for a rugged hike along the cliffs and dinner at Critchards. Or go to St. Mawes, a suddenly chic port town, and stay at the Hotel Tresanton. Eat at the Rising Sun.

DAY FOUR: Drive to Saltash and check in at St. Mellion's hotel. Play the Old course. Lunch at the clubhouse. Play the Nicklaus course. Have dinner at St. Mellion Restaurant.

DAY FIVE: Play Trevose Golf and Country Club. Lunch at Brocks Restaurant or St. Petroc's Bistro. Head north to Tintagel Castle, built on the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. Dine at the Atlantic View Hotel.

DAY SIX: Check in at St. Enodoc Hotel. Play the Church course. Lunch at the Wheelhouse. Hit the beach at Rock. Dine at La Belle Alliance, at the Wellington Hotel.

DAY SEVEN: Play St. Enodoc's Holywell course. Have lunch on the balcony at St. Enococ Hotel. Feast at celebrity chef Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant.

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